Have you ever looked back on your life and realised that you had a Sliding Doors moment - a point where if you had taken a different train, or missed a certain bus, how different your life would have turned out? In my case, it was someone else's life in the balance as well - literally.
My own Sliding Doors came in the form of an email: it was May 2013, and I was doing my inbox 'spring cleaning'- as a result, I came within a hair's width of deleting what would turn out to be the most important message I'll ever receive. I had forgotten that I had signed up to the DKMS stem cell registry in the US, so when a message from the organisation came through, I thought it was spam at first. However, I opened it on a lucky impulse, and thank God I did, for it told me that I was a genetic match for an anonymous leukaemia patient who needed my stem cells in order to receive a life-saving bone marrow transplant.
I'll admit it - realising that someone's life was now in my hands was very daunting. First, there was the logistical: I had moved to London since I registered to be a donor in the States, and I wasn't sure how donating would work from abroad. Would I have to fly back and miss work? And second, there was the emotional: I was afraid. I wanted to help, but I imagined that it would involve undergoing a painful procedure involving inserting a needle into my hip bone under general anaesthesia. I mean, they call it a 'bone marrow transplant' for a reason, right?
And it gets worse - I'm a self-professed 'needle-phobe' to the nth degree. (Confession: doctors had to chase me for my vaccinations as a kid.) How in the world could I of all people make it through such a procedure?
However, I decided that the worst possible outcome would be if I let my fears be the reason that this person was denied a chance at life - how could I live with myself if I knew that I let this person down because I was scared? And after all, how often in our lives do we really get a chance to make such a positive impact in the world? We donate to charities in the hopes of making a difference, but rarely do we get to directly see the good works that our donations produce. This was a real person who needed my help. And so I swallowed my fears, picked up the phone, and called. And thus the 'doors' slid, and I walked into the most amazing experience of my life - one that I hope many more people can experience by me sharing my story.
The first thing I learned is that donation technology has massively improved; these days most donors are able to donate by simply giving blood. That's right - donating is just like an extended blood donation! First they give you injections like flu jabs that cause your bone marrow to make extra copies of your stem cells. Those extra copies spill out into your blood stream, and then you go into a hospital as a day patient. They hook you up to a machine that takes blood out of one arm, filters out the stem cells, and pumps it back into your other arm. Thus, it's the best blood donation in the world because you get your blood back!
So I spent a lovely afternoon at the London Clinic, where I received cream tea on demand, had plenty of movies to watch, and was generally treated like royalty. Not a bad way to spend a day off of work!
But wait a minute - if I was in the UK, how were my stem cells going to reach the patient in the US? Stem cells can only survive 72 hours outside of the body, and so the clock is ticking from the moment the donation starts.
It turns out that there is an amazing global network of registries that communicate with each other. When a patient needs a transplant, registries in countries all around the world are searched in the hopes of finding a match. If the match is found in a different country than the patient, a team of volunteer couriers is on standby to take the cells wherever they need to go.
This was actually made possible by the love and determination of one woman, Shirley Nolan. Her son Anthony needed a transplant back in the 1970's, when the technology was still new. At that time, if close relatives weren't a genetic fit, there was no real way of finding an unrelated match. So Shirley set up the first registry here in the UK to match potential donors to patients in need. That legacy - the charity that bears her son's name, Anthony Nolan - coordinated my donation and made sure my cells got to the patient in time.
My part was over - or so I thought. The donations are anonymous, so I had no way of knowing how my patient had fared. But just last autumn, I received message saying that she was alive and well and wanted to make contact with me. I can't tell you how moved I was by this news...it's one thing to make a donation and hope. It's quite another to learn that someone would not be here on the planet today if it weren't for your actions. I wish everyone could experience that feeling even once.
And so, I have made it a goal of mine to do just that! Right around the time I received that second email, I was involved with the London Business School TEDx program. The premise of TED is to promote ideas 'worth spreading'. What idea could be more worthy, I thought, than the fact that each and every one of us might possess inside us the cure for someone else who has leukaemia?
And so the second part of my 'Sliding Doors adventure began - putting together a TEDx Talk to share my personal experience, including what motivated me to sign up to donate in the first place. Please watch here, and share to help me spread the word - that You Could Be the Cure! (And with a little luck, maybe there's a day of bottomless cream teas in your future as well...)
You can sign up to donate in the UK through two organisations:
If you are under 30: https://www.anthonynolan.org/apply-join-bone-marrow-register
If you are over 30: https://www.dkms.org.uk/en/register-now